Six Sigma Quality in Customer Service

On May 15th in Denver, tragedy struck a family when a 40-ton construction girder fell from an overpass onto their SUV, killing everyone.

I was saddened by the tragedy, but rather than focus on the installation of the girder, my attention focused on the phone call that occurred earlier in the day that could have saved their lives. A driver with highway construction experience called to report the girder was loose and buckling, apparently unsafe.

After the accident, TV journalists played the call for all to hear. As we listened to the call, the caller kept clearly saying "girder" and the highway call center person kept paraphrasing the man's statement, but used the word sign, not girder: "There's a loose sign?"

The call center employee reported a problem with a loose sign, which was soon checked by highway maintenance staff. They didn't even notice the girder. Why not? Because they were focused on the signs, not girders.

Stop Trying to Train Your Customers to Speak Your Language
When I worked in the phone company, I had an opportunity to work in the repair call center and listen to calls. Repair center people had a similar problem listening to what the customer was saying. They tried to teach the customer "phone speak" about central offices, trunk lines, drop boxes and other in-house terms that meant nothing to the customer. It only infuriated them and took up more time than it should have. Stop trying to train your customer to speak your language. It breaks rapport.

Be a Parrot not a Paraphraser
In grade school we were all taught to paraphrase what people say, but a "sign" is not a "girder." If you truly want to listen to the voice of the customer, in this case a concerned citizen, you have to actually listen and record what they say, not what you want to hear and not what you think you heard. Parrot what they say, never paraphrase. It builds rapport.

Don't Make Stuff Up
Just because you have one picture in your head doesn't mean that the person on the other end of the phone has the same picture. A picture of a loose girder in one mind didn't equal the picture of a loose sign in another. If, the call center employee had simply written down EXACTLY what the caller said, "girder", the disaster might have been avoided completely.

If you aren't sure what the customer means, don't invent a meaning, just ask: "What do you mean by 'girder'?" Then the caller might have said: "A gigantic steel beam that spans the highway" which would have changed the picture in the call center employee's head.

When customers call to ask about our QI Macros Six Sigma SPC software, we seek to get clear about what the customer is asking before answering their question. Few things are more irritating than getting a great answer to a question that wasn't asked. We use their words, not ours to describe the solution.

Speak Your Customer's Language
If you want to communicate effectively, you have to use the words the customer gives you. Never make the customer translate what you're saying into their language; translate what you're saying into their language so that nothing is lost in translation.

Over a decade ago I became a master practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). In NLP, we learned how to develop rapport by matching other people's language.

We often repeated that "The meaning of your communication is the response you get." If they respond in a way that matches what you think you said, it was a good communication. If they respond differently, then your communication was unclear.

The language skills I learned have served me well in everything I've done. It makes me a better husband, because I listen to what my wife says. It makes me a better consultant and supplier, because I listen to what customers want and then try to deliver it in ways that match their words. I don't always get it right but I keep working on it.

Just because we speak English does not mean that we speak the same language or that we have the same pictures, sounds, or feelings tied to any given word. We have different core values that affect our speech and five very different motivation styles that impact every aspect of our communication.

Train your customer service people to listen and connect with customers on their terms, not yours. It will make your business grow and help you retain customers. One consultant I know worked with a major airline's written complaint department. He taught half of them to reply to the customer in language that matched the words in their letters. Customers who received matching language letters increased their travel on the airline; the customers receiving the normal letters did not increase their travel.

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